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The man held his hands together, as if praying, and looked at me.

"Okay," I told him. No reason for both of us to be trapped.

I moved along the ledge to its widest point. A whole six inches of space to work with. Oh boy. It took me four tries to crawl up onto it-my feet kept slipping-but I finally managed and hugged the wall.

The man grabbed my shirt and pulled himself up. Feet stomped on my shoulders. Forget thirty pounds, he was more like fifty. He should've weighed one third of that at his size. Maybe he was made of rocks.

The man stood on my shoulders. I locked my hands and raised my arms flat against the wall. He stepped on my palms and kicked off.

I slipped and fell backward into the water. I broke the surface just in time to see him scramble into the hole and vanish.

I was all alone. Just me and fourteen feet of fresh sushi bopping on the waves. I was so tired. My arms felt like wet cotton.

Maybe I'd hallucinated the whole hobbit episode. I'd hit the water hard, ended up with a concussion, and started seeing small magic men in riding boots.

I forced myself to swim. Hanging in the water didn't accomplish anything, and I was too exhausted to keep it up for long. Another trip around the cavern confirmed what I already knew-no escape. Sitting here waiting to be rescued was a losing proposition. Even if Aunt B and Keira did somehow manage to find me, I'd spend hours waiting for them to get a rope long enough get me out. The chances of the small man returning with a detachment of Pomeranian cavalry to liberate me were even slimmer.

The serpent had to have come from somewhere. There simply weren't enough fish in this small cavern to keep it alive, and unless they fed it a steady diet of Abkhazian hobbits, it had to move freely between the cavern and the sea.

I swam to the wall where I'd first seen it and dove deep down through the crystal-clear water. Fifteen feet down, the mountain ended and a ten-foot-wide tunnel stretched before me, leading out. I had no idea how long it was.

To dive into an underwater tunnel of unknown length, possibly drowning, or to stay in the cavern until I wore myself out, possibly drowning? Sometimes life just didn't offer good choices.

I breathed deep, trying to saturate my lungs with oxygen, and dove under. The tunnel rolled out in front of me, narrowing until it was barely four feet wide. I kept going, kicking off the walls. I once heard it was a good idea to not think about holding my breath while holding it. Yeah. That's like not looking down while crossing over a cliff. Once someone says, "Don't look down," you're going to look.

The walls were closing in on me.

What if I swam out into the nest of sea serpents?

My heart hammered in my chest. I'd run out of air. I swam, frantic, desperate, fighting the water for my life.

The ocean was turning dark. I was drowning.

The tunnel's walls opened abruptly, and above me translucent blue spread. I flailed, heading straight up.

My face broke the surface. A bright beautiful sky stretched overhead. I gulped in the air. Oh wow. I lay on my back for a long second, breathing. I wasn't ready to kick the bucket. Not just yet.

Hanging in the water was lovely and all, but if more sea serpents were floating about, I had to get the hell out of the water. I straightened up. I was in the open sea. The shore-a solid vertical cliff-towered before me. The mountain was nearly sheer. Climbing it right now was beyond me.

I turned in the water. A vast indigo sea stretched around me, a constant field of blue except for a tiny island about twenty-five yards away. Only twenty feet across, it was more like a rock than an island, but right now even the runt of the island litter would do.

I swam to it. The warm water, crystal clear, slid against my skin, caressing me gently. I was so happy to be alive.

I reached the rock, climbed up its mussel-studded side, and landed on my ass. Solid ground. Beautiful, wonderful, immobile solid ground. I love you.

I lay on my back. I could probably find my way to the city once I'd rested. I'd just have to move along the shore until I reached civilization, but right now moving wasn't an option. Hanging out on this rock sounded like a really good idea. I could sit right here on this little island and think about the choices that resulted in my ending up in this place, half-drowned, exhausted, with my ankle bleeding, and a possible concussion causing hobbit hallucinations.

The warm sun heated my skin. I flipped over on my stomach, rested my forehead on my arm to keep my face from being cooked, and closed my eyes. My imagination painted a scaled monster crawling out of the sea to chew on me. I shoved the thought aside. I was safe enough here, and I was too tired to move.

* * *


I sat straight up. In the west, the sun was rolling toward the sea, the sky gaining a pale orange tint. I'd slept until evening. All my fingers and toes seemed to be still there. No monsters had come out of the sea and nibbled away any digits. My face didn't hurt either. My skin looked tan even in winter and didn't burn easily, but I had managed it a couple of times in my life and I didn't care for the experience.

"Aaay!" a man called.

I turned. A boat drifted toward me. The hunter I'd met earlier sat at the oars, his shaggy dog waiting next to him. At the nose of the boat, the small man waved his arms at me.

"We have come to save you," the hunter called out in accented Russian.

"Thank you!"

"It looks like you have saved yourself." The hunter slowed the boat and it bumped gently against the rock. I climbed aboard.

The small man smiled at me.

"Hello," the hunter said.


"We have an important decision to make," the hunter said. "The city is that way." He pointed north. "Two and a half hours. My house and dinner, that way." He pointed northeast. "One hour. I will take you either way, but I'll be honest: night is coming. Not good to travel in the dark while magic is in charge. Mountains are not safe."

Two and a half hours to the castle meant he would have to make a return trip in the dark by himself or stay somewhere in the city. His tone of voice told me he didn't care much for cities. If some strange mountain beast ate him on the way back, I wouldn't be able to live with myself. The castle and everyone inside would just have to survive without me for another twelve hours.

"Your house and dinner, please."

"Good choice."

* * *

The hunter's name was Astamur. His dog, which turned out to be a Caucasian shepherd, was named Gunda, after a mythical princess with many magical hero brothers. According to Astamur, the small man wouldn't give us his name because he was afraid it would grant us power over him, but his kind was called atsany, and he didn't mind being called that.